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Over objections from environmentalists, NC lawmakers propose cuts to car emissions testing

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Drivers in more than half of North Carolina's 48 counties requiring vehicle emissions tests may be able to forego the $30 inspection under new legislation moving through the state Legislature.

The House voted this week to allow 29 rural and suburban counties to end their testing requirements, which were implemented as part of the state's plan to reduce air pollution under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Act.

The changes would not take effect until 2020 unless they are approved before then by the EPA. If the state reduces its emissions testing without EPA approval, it could be subject to lawsuits.

Supporters of the bill said that new technology has made for cleaner cars that rarely fail the tests. They also argued that because the affected counties don't have the high populations and congestion problems of larger cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte, they contribute less to the state's pollution.

At the request of the Legislature, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources released a report earlier this year finding that none of the 48 counties with emissions testing had violated federal ozone pollution standards between 2012 and 2014. The department's final report, including legislative recommendations, is not due until next year.

Of the counties with emissions testing, Chatham had the lowest levels of ozone pollution, with 58 parts per billion, according to the report DENR report. The highest was Mecklenburg, which had 73. The national standard for ozone is 75 parts per billion, but the EPA has proposed lowering it.

"The air is getting cleaner in North Carolina, we don't have the same issues we had back in the 80s and 90s," bill sponsor Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said during floor debate.

But environmental activists and House Democrats expressed skepticism that the plan is getting the full attention it warrants. While they largely agree that air pollution is less severe than in decades past __ when acid rain thinned forests and smog blurred views in the state's scenic parks __ they argue that those improvements are a sign that the emissions rules work.

"We have made a great deal of progress, but again we are one of the fastest growing states in the country, and that reasonably means there is going to be a lot more cars on the road, and those cars won't necessarily be new," said Molly Diggins, the state director of the Sierra Club.

Before passing the full House, the bill received approval from the House transportation and finance committees. During floor debate, several House Democrats, and one Republican, argued that the bill deserved consideration from the Environment Committee, but their attempts to remove it there were unsuccessful. The bill has been referred to the Transportation Committee in the Senate.

More than 5.3 million emissions inspections were conducted in North Carolina in 2013. Some of the affected counties, like Edgecombe, conducted less than 30,000 inspections, while others, like New Hanover, conducted well over 100,000 inspections. The owners of some newer cars as well as older cars that have been grandfathered in are exempted from inspections.

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